Binge drinking, binge eating, and binge-worthy shows speak to man’s addictive nature. But what about binge reading? Publishing houses and their marketing machines presume it’s all about sequels and series. “Give them more!” they cry.
But the truth is that avid readers have done it for centuries, even for the same book.
Two hundred years ago even the wealthiest purchased subscriptions to lending libraries because books were still quite expensive. Thus, reading audiences across Europe were understandably small until the educated population increased. It’s no wonder that reading more than one book or rereading one would be considered an indulgence.
My reading binges usually correspond with school breaks or a long weekend. It’s a predictable thing. Give me some time off of work, especially time in airports, and I speed read. My travel home from Los Angeles last week made way for two full novels in twelve hours. Though I didn’t choose them for depth, I did find myself learning new things and appreciating both authors.
Louis L’Amour’s Callaghen features a veteran soldier in his thirties who has the right amount of grit and instinct to stay alive with his patrol in the Mojave Desert post-Civil War. Irish to the core, Callaghen is clear L’Amour hero material: He was a tall man, with wide shoulders, a well-setup man who ordinarily moved easily and with some grace. Around the post he was something of a mystery. He is a clear underdog, and you find yourself easily rooting for a cliched character: He rode straight into the morning, his gun ready, and death rode with him, almost at his side.
The story is almost too predictable, too suitable for an easy read. The characterization is flat as can be, but L’Amour has a way with action scenes blended with a heavy setting in this plot. It’s clear that he researched a great deal because the desert is a living character throughout the story, for the desert is always waiting . . . the desert itself speaks, for the earth lives, and in the night’s stillness one can hear the earth growing, hear the dying and the borning and the rebirth of many things. A bit of sand trickles, a rock falls, a tree whispers of moans—these are the breathings of the earth. Oh, the setting! I want to write like that. I was captivated by this place of life and death and felt that alone made the novel worthy reading.
Published twenty years later, Chinua Achebe’s sequel to Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease is a 1950s drama illustrating the tension of modern culture grating against village wisdom. Achebe’s clever use of dialogue uniquely reflects the people, and I for one, loved to hear them speak.
The story follows the life of Nigerian Obi Okonkwo, the eldest son of Isaac Okonkwo and the first selected by the Umuofia village to go to university in London. He has four years to pay back four years of schooling once he returns. And return he does, though not as the expected lawyer nor with the ideal wife. Okonkwo finds employment in the large city of Lagos and quickly discovers how easy it is to spend his advance salary and how to land in debt.
As a member of the scholarship board, Okonkwo idealistically refuses bribes of any kind. He expresses how he hoped to be the one who changes the government system, and everyone knows it all runs on bribery. Unfortunately, things do fall apart. His mother falls ill, and he travels to his native village where he is forbidden to marry his girflriend Clara because she is osu, a Nigerian whose family line had once been dedicated to pagan gods.
As the plot continues, the one thing I am struck by is how similar this story is to the American play of the 1950s. Think the despondency of Death of a Salesman. Though written in 1994, Achebe lands the story firmly in a patch of modern malaise, the feeling that yes, things will fall apart, and yes, things will only get worse. And more so, the characters and the story will lose hope, if they ever had a bit at all. The theme is familiar, yet Achebe’s writing style remains engaging.
My brief binge is over, and I have many books on my platter yet. Yes, a platter. Who has room for a mere plate anyway?
I surprised myself today. As I was teaching my high school juniors and we were discussing the end of A Tale of Two Cities, we reviewed how Sydney Carton managed to switch places with Darnay. We had been discussing what he could represent, noting that Dickens himself calls Carton “Advocate” rather than lawyer or defender in the final chapters. I reread two scenes related to Sydney Carton.
Here I was reading aloud, reading a most poignant moment where the young unnamed seamstress asks to hold Carton’s hand before they journey to the tumbrils and then La Guillotine. She was sure she was addressing Darnay, the prisoner she knew the year before in the cruelest of prisons, La Force—until the critical moment when she gazes up into his face. It was then she saw it was Carton, a complete stranger. But she knew. She knew he was there to save the lives of Darnay, Lucie, and little Lucie, who were escaping brutal Paris at that very moment.
After we hear of the swift demise of our villainess, Charles Dickens returns to the hapless pair. Carton and the little seamstress are now traveling in the last tumbril, he the supposed celebrity execution of the day. But they are oblivious. He holds her hand, looking at her and she at him. In their final moments ascending the scaffold, she thanks him, saying--
But for you dear stranger, I should not be so composed, for I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart, nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here today. I think you were sent to me by Heaven.'
As I read aloud today, I began to tear up and my voice wavered. My class noticed of course. I promptly apologized for my emotion, stating that this scene simply undoes me. I have read this novel at least seven times now. Each time. Yes, each time, I cry. Each time, I think to myself, “I know what’s coming. I won’t cry today.” My classes laugh it off, I dab at my eyes, and a few brave souls admit to being overcome when they read it alone at home the night before.
At the end of the school day, however, I began to ponder why Dickens’ writing has that effect on me. He’s quite guilty of sentimentality at times. Think of when Lucie faints after her husband is taken away and Carton carries her to the carriage while young Lucie whispers, “I think you will do something to help mamma, something to save papa! O, look at her, dear Carton! Can you, of all the people who love her, bear to see her so?” Oh yes, drops of sappiness ooze through hyperbolic drama.
Perhaps I cry because of the pathos of the moment. Maybe it’s because Dickens has elevated this lowliest of sinners to a place of sacrifice from the greatest fidelity of an unselfish love. Yet, I’m hesitant. Dare I say, I think it’s the beauty of the scene captured in the beauty of words. Not overdone in this instant, but perfectly balanced with the image of a formerly wicked man being the redemption, the “prophetic” coming to life before our eyes, saving the generations of every Darnay and Manette to come. It took a full novel to come to this scene of import, and I think that—yes, that is the moment the heart, my heart, recognizes the beauty in the depth of this storyteller’s words.
Then Jesus calling out with a loud voice said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this, he breathed his last. And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle when they saw what had taken place returned home beating their breasts.
If they were family members, they would have torn their clothes. Keriah. But a public crowd still showed grief by pounding on their hearts, for the majority of them did not understand that Christ would be resurrected.
ELIJAH AS PRECURSOR Let's continue reading in Matthew 27.
And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
This is 800 years after Elijah had lived on earth. The people must have thought Elijah could save Jesus, perhaps chariot and all. Yet within a few verses Jesus dies.
Above all, just like Elisha who tore his clothes in two, this was and is not a sign of grief. The tearing of the veil at the moment of Jesus' death dramatically symbolized that His sacrifice, the shedding of His own blood, was a sufficient atonement for sins. It signified that now the way into the Holy of Holies was open for all people, for all time, both Jew and Gentile.
When Jesus died, the curtain was torn, and God moved out of that place never again to dwell in a temple made with hands according to Acts 17:24. In a sense, the veil was symbolic of Christ Himself as the only way to the Father (John 14:6). Before, the high priest had to enter the Holy of Holies through the curtain. Now Christ became our High Priest, and as believers in His finished work, we can enter the Holy of Holies through Him.
Hebrews 10:19-20 says that the faithful enter into the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his flesh. Here we see the image of Jesus’ flesh being torn for us.
As Elisha tore his clothes, knowing he was walking into a double portion and a new life, Christ tore the veil for us so that we can walk into a new life that He prepared.
CLOAKS. ROBES. CLOTHING MADE OUT OF ANIMAL HAIR.
We could call it Old Testament fashion, but it all appears in the Book of Kings. In 2 Kings 1, Ahab’s son Ahaziah received the awful truth that he wouldn't recover from his fall. After sending for messengers to inquire of Baal about whether he would live, God sent Elijah to intercept and ambush them with the truth that Ahaziah would die.
But Ahaziah's messengers didn't know Elijah. They had only learned a name. Elijah’s name meant My God is Yah-weh. We know Moses learned firsthand that Yahweh meant I am who I am. Once Ahaziah heard of Elijah, he had to know who the man was. How was he identified by the messengers? By his clothes! He wore a garment of hair with a leather belt, yes, just like John the Baptist in Matthew, except John wore camel hair. One Jewish translation reads that Elijah didn’t wear hairy clothes, but that he was a hairy man!
As the account in Kings continues in 2 Kings 2:6-8, it was time for Elijah to go to heaven. He said to Elisha, Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.
AN ACT OF FAITH
Elijah had already anointed Elisha to take his place as prophet because God told him to in 1 Kings 19. Everyone knew Elijah would be taken up to heaven that day. After he asked Elisha what he wanted from him, Elisha responds, I want a double portion of your spirit. Or I want double of the gift that is in you as a prophet of God. Almost immediately the fiery horses and chariot appear to whisk Elijah away. It’s as if God and Elijah were waiting for Elisha to complete that act of faith. Elijah had completed his purpose on this earth. He had given away what he had been given by God, and God multiplied it to Elisha.
Elisha cried “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen! And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 2 Kings 2:12
Why tear his clothes? When someone dies in Jewish culture, family members and friends tear their clothes immediately when it happens or when they hear the news. In Genesis, Jacob, for instance, tore his clothes when he thought his son Joseph had died. David tore his when King Saul died. Even Levitical priests weren't allowed in the temple if they were observing keriah. It doesn’t mean tearing clothes to bits and ruining them, but it is an outward expression signifying grief. Some say it is symbolic of the soul shedding its garments.
Elisha tore his entirely. He was no longer the apprentice but the prophet of Israel. He was not going from the old to the new but walking into a new season in his life.
Continue reading next week to see how this connects to Christ and the temple.
What if love notes or poems or sonnets weren't simply about a person? Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul.
When we think of love sonnets, most of us think of the sappy ooze of lyricists or the flavorless mush in greeting cards. But when they were first written in the 14th century, their intent was much different.
It all began with Francesco Petrarch in 1304. Like his predecessor Dante, Petrarch was a devout Catholic. He too was exiled from Italy with his family due to civil unrest. Once in France, Petrarch’s father had a successful law practice, and the family prospered, so much so that he arranged the best education money could buy at the time—private tutors. By age 16, Petrarch dutifully followed in his father’s footsteps and studied law first at Montpelier then at Bologna.
Legend tells that since his father was supplying an allowance to Petrarch, he often made surprise visits at university. One such afternoon, Petrarch was quietly reading a book in his rented room when his father suddenly arrived. Enraged at the number of books Petrarch had purchased with his allowance, he promptly threw them out of the window and into the street below.
Now throwing around books at this time was no light matter. Before the printing press, many books were hand-copied and sewn together at great cost. If the story is indeed true, Petrarch likely spent a month’s allowance on one book alone. His personal library held copies of Homer’s Iliad, Cicero's Rhetoric, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid, all of which he loved dearly.
FORGET THE LAW
Meanwhile, his father set fire to the small stash in the middle of the street. Any passerby would know the value of that fire, and naturally disheartened, within a few months Petrarch quit law school and promptly announced he was going to be a writer and poet and take his ecclesiastical orders. Some biographers say that his father died before he could quit; others that Petrarch was simply dissatisfied with the untruthfulness of the law as a whole.
From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good
Petrarch did pursue his minor orders and began to write, and this is where the sonnet as a form was born. The story he tells lies in Sonnet 3. He was in Avignon at service on Good Friday in 1327, "the day the sun's ray had turned pale," a day of “universal woe,” when a light from the cathedral window shone on a woman rows in front of him. It was Laura de Sade, who was already wed or soon to be by most accounts. She was illumined, and a Muse was born. They likely never met or spoke from that moment, but Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets about her and to her.
NO STALKING HERE
The thing is Petrarch was not some obsessive stalker, but a man instead who knew love in a different way. That God revealed her to him on Good Friday was everything. For him, Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul, "From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good . . ." (Sonnet 13).
I FIRST READ Up from Slavery ten years ago and was quickly surprised that it wasn’t required reading for every educator. In his autobiography, Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915) leaves us an equal bounty of moral wisdom and caution that all began with his dream to learn. Education is central to his story. He writes, There was never a time in my youth, no matter how dark and discouraging the days might be, when one resolve did not continually remain with me, and that was a determination to secure an education at any cost.
Once the slaves were freed after the Civil War, Washington, his mom, and siblings walked from Franklin County, Virginia, to the salt mines of Malden, West Virginia, to join his stepdad who had found work there. In a rough shanty town of whites and blacks, Washington envied the one young colored boy who read the evening papers aloud to his neighbors. Within a few weeks, Washington taught himself to read the alphabet. Within a few months, the colored people had found their first teacher, a Negro boy from Ohio who was a Civil War veteran. The families all agreed to board him as pay, and he taught children and adults alike. Washington relates, it was a whole race trying to go to school. The oldest Negroes were determined to read the Bible before they died, and every class, even Sunday school, was full of eager learners of every age. Unfortunately, Washington was not one of them.
Washington leaves us an equal bounty of moral wisdom and caution that all began with his dream to learn.
Washington’s stepdad found him to be more valuable as a worker and would not release him from his shifts. For months, while he worked at the head of the mine, Washington watched the Negro children walk to and from school. Eventually, he was able to secure lessons at night and eagerly devoured all he could. As time passed and he continued to press his stepfather, Washington finally won. He was allowed to work early, go to day school, work two more hours late afternoon before returning home—all at the age of eleven.
Washington worked as a salt packer, coal miner, and house servant, always attending school in the off hours. By 1872 at the age of sixteen, he traveled for a month to reach Hampton, Virginia, to attend a teacher school for African Americans. He served as the school janitor to support himself and graduated in three years with a certificate to teach in a trade school. The desire to learn was his work ethic. His work ethic was his desire to learn.
As Washington saw his dream to educate others come to fruition, he taught at a local school in Hampton then in a program for Native Americans before agreeing to train Negroes at an agricultural and mechanical school in Alabama, the Tuskegee Institute. He writes humbly and fluently of his years there in leadership, even as his national influence grew.
Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.
Slave or free, shallow or deep, useless or useful. The distractions of life, the shiny things, are superficial. Yes, we agree. Our country, our people, this humanity, cannot grow until we see past them and move toward seeing each other in every skill or occupation or gifting as God designed us.
In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway portrays the character of Frederic Henry as a hedonist, a young man who has always been indulged but is trapped by the circumstances of war. He lives each day completing his work and pursuing his pleasures, likely aware that he could be killed at any moment. Henry is surrounded with other characters who act as he does, yet he searches for a greater meaning for his life, almost as if mining for that singular thing of value, hoping for better and fumbling through.
At the beginning of the novel, Hemingway likens Henry to his immoral peers, claiming like Rinaldi that they are “all fire and smoke and nothing inside.” Henry drinks wine with his companions and goes to the whorehouse with the captain. He drinks regularly with his roommate Rinaldi at any time of day and womanizes both at the officer’s whorehouse and in town with the new nurses. Being with women is just a game for him, and he claims that he “did not care what he was getting into.”
Henry is much like Aristotle’s incontinent man who pursues pleasure and does experience momentary regret, but not enough to elicit change. Henry even says to the priest, “we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things.” Though meager, Henry’s sense of morality, or at the least, his awareness of moral choice, does exist.
A life without faith breeds hopelessness.
Once Henry is wounded though, Hemingway clarifies Henry’s budding perspective. Henry agrees with the priest that the “war disgust” is depressing and acknowledges that he does not know God, only fears Him. So though he admits that God exists and that man is in need, Henry chooses not to rely upon God, but rather upon himself.
Henry’s disposition toward Catherine also changes and matures. Once in the Milan hospital, Henry sees Catherine and knows that he is in love with her. At first in Book I, he had lied to placate her, and she was fully aware of and complicit in his game. But now, it’s as if he accidentally stumbles upon the greater meaning he unconsciously desires—love. Hemingway describes it as being “never lonely and never afraid when we were [are] together.” As Henry recuperates, Catherine continues to visit him, and they spend their nights together. In fact, they live almost exclusive of others and find meaning only in themselves and their relationship. Hemingway’s humanistic view relies solely on their choices, their mutual self-reliance.
What kind of love is this?
At the end of his escape, Henry reasons that all he wants to do in life is “eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.” This sentiment, this declaration of need, dominates Henry’s reasoning through the remaining chapters. Henry later states to Count Greffi that the thing he values most is “Someone I love,” and the Count replies that “that is a religious feeling.”
For Henry, being with Catherine is almost transcendental; it becomes his purpose for living, particularly because he deserted the Italian army not only for his survival, but also for hers and the baby’s. In spite of the fact that Henry becomes entirely dependent upon Catherine for his happiness, Hemingway ironically portrays Catherine as a shallow automaton who tirelessly asks Henry how she can please him or make him happy. Even in her final throes of labor she doesn’t want to make trouble. Her character shows no depth, yet Henry remains fervently devoted. Perhaps this obsession is one reason Henry’s path to happiness fails upon Catherine’s death and that of their son.
By Hemingway’s closing commentary, we now know that Frederic Henry is not only a pleasure-seeking humanist, but also a fatalist. Henry blames the world, or vaguely God, for his tragedy: “You never got away with anything.” He’s convinced that the immorality of his nights in Milan led to this negative end. Henry acknowledges what most would term “sin” and attributes these happenings as direct consequences, of reaping what was sown, without a hope of eternity: “You died. You did not know what it was about,” and Catherine too terms her imminent death “a dirty trick.”
This hopelessness is a just denouement for a character who lived a life without faith from the beginning, but the bigger question just might be what Hemingway was illustrating about the generation he lived in.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A LONELY ONION. My family had travelled to a theme park for spring break and was staying in a 1970 rental nearby. As I was preparing a pasta soup for dinner that first night, I was trying to chop an onion, well, hew an onion. Like most rentals, the kitchen utensils were cheap, meaning no one would ever take them home, thus my dilemma. First off, my knife wouldn't cut straight, so rather than cut through the onion, the knife was trying to make a circular slash. Yes, the knife. Not me. I had to start sawing. I had really wanted to dice an entire onion to start my soup but barely got a third sawn off. Now to dice. Needless to say, I had already spent fifteen minutes. Mind you, diced onion was just the first ingredient. I began to slice and individually cut each piece simply because that knife couldn't handle any more. Sometimes, just sometimes, when something simple in my life takes such effort, I ask the Lord what is going on.
My frustration came down to two things—a dull tool and a vital flavor.
These are things that hinder and help, and I began to consider them both. I asked the Lord if I had any dullness. Was there something He had given me that I had left alone? Was there anything that I was trying to do without Him? I didn’t want to be the one who hid her gold talent in the ground because I was afraid to try [Matthew 25].
For everyone who has something will be given more, so that he will have more than enough; but from anyone who has nothing, even what he does have will be taken away.
This was two years ago, and the first hints of writing were working in my heart even then. It was time to act, to do. Please, God, let me be faithful with my small amount.
And then there’s flavor. How could I make soup without flavor? became Does my life have flavor? Is it truly fruitful? In Matthew 13, Jesus told them another parable:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches. He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.
Mustard seeds and yeast. Flavors that grow.
God’s kingdom is just that, an entire kingdom. It has everything we have need of, every resource, every bit of His goodness for us. EVERYTHING. And the kingdom’s nature is to multiply. In Luke 17, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is within us. My prayer, my trust, is that Christ in me is multiplying and leading me in fruitfulness.
ARISTOTLE MAY HAVE GOT IT RIGHT. His emphasis on logic allowed him to view slaves and slavery, men and property owners, more rationally and compassionately than any other leader. This single topic of his time shows us a broad yet thorough picture of how true reasoning works and works fairly.
The concept and practice of enslaving other peoples has existed for centuries. In most ancient societies, slavery was not only custom but also necessity. Without this foundation of labor, the very structure of early societies could fail. In ancient Greece, Aristotle argued that slavery was a necessity, and it could be either just or unjust in practice; yet he also acknowledged that rational slaves could have souls (which begs another question of course) and deserved to be freemen. This seeming discrepancy points to his growing awareness of slavery’s issues and perhaps his perspective of man. In Politics, Aristotle himself questions whether a man can be destined to be a slave at birth: But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave . . . or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? (1.1254a). I appreciate this last question the most. Aristotle is not a man set in his ways nor is he firmly cemented in popular thought.
Aristotle felt that a man’s natural tendencies, even inherited ones, could lead him to be ruled, one who naturally was subjected. However, he did see an exception to this “natural” slavery; essentially, he qualified his own proposition because subjection might have been true for some, but not for an entire peoples and not for those who didn’t choose it. Aristotle conceded, for example, that it was unjust to enslave through war those who were not slaves by nature (1.1255a). He even termed the conquering of others for this purpose a “great evil” (7.1333b) because conquered peoples were being forced into something they weren’t born to. Aristotle did see the injustice of this single form of slavery.
Could it be true? If slaves had rational minds, then they would not be natural slaves and thus, using Aristotle’s reasoning, should not be enslaved.
Yet Aristotle also insisted that slavery was a natural, expected, and just foundation for a living society, for some should rule and others [should] be ruled (1.1254a). Typically, this same community required slaves, ministers of action, to function. Since they were his property, his possession, slaves were the means by which a master secured his livelihood (1.1253b). Aristotle saw slavery as just when the rule of master over slave was beneficial to both parties. He even allowed that they could share in friendship (1.1255b). Here, then, is where Aristotle concedes again that a slave might not truly be a slave by nature. They could have souls like rational men, unlike beasts of burden, since they were capable of friendship and considered part of the master (Ibid). The discrepancy lies in that they had to be rational in order to obey their masters. But if slaves had rational minds, then they would not be natural slaves and thus, using Aristotle’s reasoning, should not be enslaved.
Though Aristotle clearly advocated slavery in his time, he acknowledged his opponents’ arguments, too. If slavery was a violation of nature as others had proposed, then the distinction between slave and freeman exist[ed] by law only, and not by nature and was also declared unjust (1.1253b).
Since Aristotle allowed for such considerations, maybe by his generalization there couldn’t be one applicable definition for all slaves nor could there be an absolutist view of the issue. Aristotle could see that some slaves, a portion, were rational men, but he couldn’t apply that reasoning to all as a group. He could not allow for all slaves to be men, for that would destroy the infrastructure of his ideal community, the polis.
THIS TIME OF YEAR seems to both sadden me and lighten my heart. In the school year, I grow sad because I realize that my time of influence with my students is even shorter. Only months remain, not an entire school year. Yet, I'm grateful for a two week reprieve. Not seeing each other for a time does help us appreciate each other more. I get to be a full-time mom in person for more than a few hours at a time. I'm not thinking of work to-do lists, which parent to call, which student to encourage, which grade to update, which novel to reread, which meeting to attend, which article to prepare. In the natural, my focus shifts. I have a feeling many of us have these halfway points whether in the course of the natural calendar, the work world, or in the spiritual sense.
So what is it that makes a halfway point so poignant?
First, it's a blend of a sense of accomplishment and an understanding that more remains to be done. For me, I become thankful. Yes, I can see that more work lies ahead, but I can also see that some things have come to completion, and it's not because of me. My accomplishments are not my own because I am God's creation, and He is working through me. "But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works" (Psalm 73:28). In Hebrew, this word work means something that God has made or done. This is the same word used in the Genesis account, things that are created like ourselves. In the same way, as His created, we "bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!" (Psalm 103:22). We praise Him for for what He has created, that's us, and we praise Him for the works He creates through us. Psalm 90:17 reiterates this: "Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!" Another way to read this within the context of the Hebrew meaning is "Let the beauty of God be upon us, and let the active work of our God be firm in us, so that our active work would be firm as well." It's really a simple idea. As I walk with God, the act of creation through my hands is like His act of creation. I am creating and working because I am in His image. And I am thankful that He chooses me to create and work.
Secondly, this halfway point is poignant because I have time to reflect. If I truly reflect—turn back and look again—I will hopefully see both my successes and failures and even moments that are neither. James 3: 13 asks "Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom." In the Greek, work here means work that completes an inner desire or purpose. I hope I'm honest with myself, especially in the meekness category. I admit that my reflection often turns negative, yet that doesn't imply something horrible or discouraging. These are moments to renew purpose especially if the fall semester didn't go as I had hoped or planned. I intentionally think of which students I have truly helped, where relationship is strong, and yet I now have the time to consider how to better help those I didn't connect as well with. I'm often disappointed with myself for things I've said or situations I didn't handle with wisdom, but I know I'm learning alongside my students, and God is with me. As I reflect, I once again grow thankful.
And that may just be my point. I'm only halfway. Things aren't finished. I'm unfinished, but I'm thankful. "I give thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart . . . On the day I called, you answered me, my strength of soul you increased . . . for the Lord will fufill his purpose for me. Do not forsake the work of your hands" (Psalm 138:1,3,8).
originally posted December 2016